Friday 22 May 2015

Exploring John Keats' Philosophy of Art in “Ode On A Grecian Urn”

@omotayome  for Twitter

Ode on a Grecian Urn celebrates the reality of still-life in art than the harsh realities of normal life. In the painting on the Grecian Urn, everything becomes important in their lifelessness and stillness. It is as if John Keats is elevating deadness to life as an ultimate escape from life’s stinging realities. In the poem, John Keats comes to see art as many things. For one, he glorifies it as he portrays it as the fulfillment of that which the limitedness of life cannot achieve. The limitations of life are various; and they have always continued to define humans. Time and its transience are perhaps the dominant of these limitations. Most times, these limitations make the joy of living pass off so soon. In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the opposite of that is attained; everything is permanent. Permanence rolls on with luxuries, longings, and unending passions. However, amidst these luxuries of permanence are unanswered questions – the evil of stillness perhaps, perhaps not. In the poem, so many questions are left unanswered. More than they being rhetorical, one may say, just as with stillness, answers to them have also been frozen:

 Who are these coming to the sacrifice?...
      ....And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
 Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

John Keats’ philosophy of art can be briefly summed up as: art is that which life is not. That means art’s glory is manifested in the inadequacies of life. In the poem, one can deduce John Keats’ philosophy of life as thus: Art as an ultimate preserver, Art as a Keeper of Beauty and Time, Art as a True Picture of Humanity and Art as a form of Escapism.

Art as an Ultimate Preserver

The addressed Grecian Urn is an object that records the various scenes and stories the poem talks about. In the opening of the poem, the persona calls this urn:

 Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness…
And to further portray the preserver and recorder nature of the urn, he follows the above with:

 Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
The painting on the urn preserves the histories of man by freezing and keeping the pictures in ultimate silence, so that nothing is rushed and nothing uttered. It is because of this feature of the painting that an encounter with the many stories on the urn is possible with the persona. Many people, like the persona, must also have witnessed this same painting on the urn and the Grecian urn must have been in existences for years. It is in the ability of the painting as an ultimate preserver that such stories still live on for the persona to encounter and relive in the poem. Hence, deducedly, John Keats sees art as the ultimate preserver.

Art as a Keeper of Beauty and Time

In stanza two of the poem, a lover bent on winning a damsel is implored to take ease. He is so advised because time is permanent and his lover’s beauty will be forever fresh. However, there is futility of pursuit to the lover's attempt; he will never be able to kiss the lady, his wooing would not stop and her beauty will not fade. In the art he is perpetually subjected to eternal grieve of continued proposition. The endless pursuit of the lover is portrayed here:

 Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!   

Art as a True Picture of Humanity

On the Grecian urn, different stories are told about various occasions of life. The different scenes on the urn come to picturesquely depict humanity in all its forms – the fantasies, wiles, beauty and religion. As humanity is made up of different happenings so also are the paintings on the urn. In the first stanza of the poem, one encounters the wild sexual ecstasy of men, of maidens wanting to escape this wild estasy and the stomping revelry around it all:
                         …What maidens loth? 
 What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?  
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

In the second stanza, there is music and a story of love. These two subjects are of essence to life. Music, an integral part of our daily existence and love, as some say, the thing our emotions must uniformly identify with:

 Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;…

 Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve…
 In the fourth stanza, one is confronted with religion. There is a ritual rite to be carried out. One sees a priest approaching an altar to offer sacrifice to some gods, perhaps in appeasement perhaps for other things. One can only assume.

Art as a Form of Escapism

By reflecting on the pictures on the urn and eulogizing them, John Keats engages in escapism. He goes into the world portrayed on the urn to briefly forget the horrors of this world and its temporal nature. The reason for John Keats’ escapism is understandable. One could link this escapism to John Keats’ falling health as this poem was composed at a time tuberculosis was almost pulling the last strand of his life1. In exalting the still nature of the art, he is imploring the reader to turn away from life and focus on art as the ideal form life.

1.      1. Biography Online: John Keats Biography (